Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I’ve always been vociferous about my hatred of television. So it takes many of my friends by surprise when they learn that I’m a fan of American Football which is so heavily predicated on TV as its medium. I’ve actually begun to take pleasure in announcing the fact because it’s such a jarringly “mainstream” interest against the backdrop of my radical political leanings and criticism of American mass culture. Perhaps the desire to be contrarian is lurking here… don’t ever be too predictable.

I offer a few observations after seeing the opening day game of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.


If one discusses football within the larger sphere of culture, it’s worth noting some differences from soccer. Despite the NFL requiring expensive and esoteric body armor, I maintain that it is a superior sport at its highest level because the combination of touchdowns and field goals records the steady marches of teams back and forth across each others territory in a manner that soccer lacks.

I saw much of the World Cup this past summer while in Egypt. Soccer is certainly the world’s sport because, unlike football, all it takes is a round, kickable object and two spots designated as goals. Soccer functions quite well at its more pedestrian levels but things change entirely at the elite realm of the World Cup. Those teams are heavily skewed toward defense and much is made about the lack of scoring. Now I have no problem with watching a scoreless, defensive battle but there is a problem that emerges; where one team absolutely dominates another yet in the absence of a score, has no measure of that success. What is invisibly happening in this situation? The power of the referee is exponentially increasing. Referee decisions contribute to 50% of all scoring in the World Cup by awarding corner, free and penalty kicks- in a sport that lacks replay. The power of the referee in the absence of scoring breeds theatricality akin to the World Wrestling Federation’s ritualized entertainment. Endless player faces artificially contorted in grimaces as the ankle is grabbed- but only long enough to see that the referee remained unimpressed at which time the player pops up and continues sprinting. If throwing ones own body at the earth has higher odds of generating a scoring opportunity than good play does; then your sport is adrift from a conventional understanding of competition.

Commander in Chief

Football is unique among sports in the relationship between coach and players. It truly mimics the generalship of warfare in how the coach/general plans an attack or defense and the player/soldiers implement it, followed immediately by another cycle of plan and execution. The design of plays and their accompanying formations harks back to the calculated tactics of a hoplite phalanx or a medieval tercio. It should be noted that this turn-based style of play differs markedly from the flowing, continuous play of soccer, hockey, basketball etc. where a coach’s intercession happens only in rare instances or only as a more general aura of encouragement emanating from the sideline. Turn based play also provides an unprecedented number of commercial breaks, which is ultimately the reason for the football’s ascendancy in the American market rather than its unique and remarkable preservation of a flavor of warfare.


There were all sorts of miniature plastic bags blowing around the parking lots of Gillette. Was this the fall migration of plastic bags heading south- prompted by the arrival of football season? Amidst it all were occasional jersey-bedecked fans hunching over piles of parts on the ground. “What the hell is going on?” was my thought; I was acutely aware of my newbie status at tailgating. Perhaps this is the enactment of another arcane tradition I’m unaware of. However, this was the first game of the season and I was actually witnessing the mass assembly of hundreds of brand new grills for the first time in preparation for the upcoming season.

Tailgating thus involves a mixture of large quantities of alcohol with lots of untested grills and their volatile cooking fuel. All the while happening amidst a vast field of gassed up vehicles. Can’t you see the headline already? “Thousands of SUVs Consumed as Firefighters and Patriots Fans Battle Blaze for Third Straight Day.”


Alas, someone’s advertising dollars were squandered. Some bright-hopeful put their message on a banner towed by a plane above Gillette Stadium’s parking lots. The problem was that there were three of these damn things. I kept waiting for the gasp and screams of onlookers as the planes would plunge to earth with crumpled wings after a mid-air collision… dragging their banners behind like ineffective parachutes. The individual banner messages are long forgotten due to the imagined disaster seared into my mind. But that’s not all, there were two helicopters flitting around simultaneously. Finally, there came the big addition to the skies with the military flyover before kickoff. Nothing less than a Stealth bomber. Jesus Fucking Christ, I’m as liberal as they come and I abhor the squandered resources that go into the military machine- but that thing was awesome. No amount of familiarity through photographs can prepare you for that rectilinear wing lumbering through the air. It’s been around for 20 years already- it’s essentially obsolete (I say it was obsolete before the first one ever flew) but I’m reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seemed to defy the laws of physics, optics, and sound as it deafeningly floated blackly by. Oh yeah, what did those little banners say again?

The Logo

A brand-new football that had been arcing overhead was causing a stir as it was passed from person to person, each in turn looking closely at something on the ball. In turn I saw that it was a tiny logo of laurel leaves encompassing the text: “No Child Slave Labor Used On This Ball.” For those of you unaware; various sports have been famously embarrassed by the revelation that soccer moms were delivering their American children to practices where the balls were made by Pakistani children working in slavery. So here was the “Dolphin Safe” strategy tackling a different arena. I do hope that it works but here are some thoughts…

First, I consider the explicitness of “child”. Are we to assume it is ok for adult slave labor to be used? Next I consider the definition of “slave” labor. Doubtless, some organization maintains a definition of “slave”, but I envision the entities that used children in the first place to be able to twist that definition as needed to maintain exploitive practices. This may seem cynical, but I’m reminded of personal experience in Egypt where I saw “Schools of Carpet Making”. At a glance it appears hopeful that people are being trained with useful skills for their economy. The reality is darker; “school” masks the use of unpaid (slave) child labor under the guise of them “learning”. Finally there is “wage slavery”.

The initial raison d’etre of that logo is so horrifying that I somehow doubt that a little ink will solve the collusion of forces that generated the issue in the first place. Like the Dolphin-Safe logo, its ubiquity will ultimately render it meaningless. Our inability to provide personal oversight of the fair use of the logo enmeshes us in a system involving trust that some “authority” is looking out for it. An increased bureaucratization is demanded to combat exploitation. Unfortunately these are more baby steps where we give up autonomy in the hopes that the world will be better. As these types of benevolent interventions become pervasive they also contribute to a public sense that “someone” or “something” will take care of it all. We accept and welcome the creation of an entity that provides oversight, though this is obviously an alleviation of symptoms vs a cure of the cause. Proposals of what to do instead will have to await a later discussion. For now I simply aim to illustrate how we are trapped between an unmonitored freedom allowing something like self-actualization and the reality that we inhabit a culture so viciously profit driven that new structures and authorities must be constantly created to try to reign in those forces. The logo thus reflects a more general increased ordering and surveillance of our lives that percolates into the most minute areas of culture- yes even onto the side of a football.

That logo may be a tool that emancipates a few thousand children but it is also a manifestation of a complex system that enslaves us all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this post. Thought provoking analysis combined with absurd humor. Keep it up!

4:13 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home